The Trip – Part 2
Hello there, here we go again to pick up where I last left off. It’s been a very eventful few weeks starting in Bangkok where I met good friends Matt and Caz or ‘Maz’ as I’ll refer to them collectively for ease. Maz and I managed to find each other in a restaurant near Khao San Road where we booked into a guesthouse (triple room) for $1.50 each per night. It wasn’t bad at all considering how cheap it seemed and was roughly the same price that we paid for accommodation for the next 2 weeks going through Cambodia and into Laos. I’m a little bit Scottish so being tight fisted and knowing I’ve got a deal is integral to me!
That first night in Bangkok after some excited discussions we planned to hit the road the next day and discussed our options; Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia? In the last week or so I’d decided to study my TEFL course at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand so bearing that in mind plus Maz’s travel plans we decided upon Cambodia then either Laos or Vietnam. We found a small backstreet travel agent selling bus tickets to Siem Reap (where the Angkor Wat Temples are) in Cambodia. It was 250 baht per ticket so approx $6 for an 8 hour journey. It seemed a little cheap and as the old saying goes, ‘if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is’. We totally ignored that thought and booked the tickets anyway and were met by a minivan at 7am the next morning.
After a 3 to 4 hour journey we hit the Cambodian border and our mental light bulbs lit up as it dawned on us why the tickets were so cheap – ‘ the visa scam’. You get taken to a restaurant near the border and asked for your passports and told that they need to get you a visa ( you do need a visa), they then take all passports from everyone on the bus and take them to the consulate and within half an hour they come back and charge you $38 for the whole affair. However if you are in the know then you just need to be a bit pushy and tell them that you know what are doing and that you’ll sort out your own visa at the border which you can for $25.
The border crossing is somewhat interesting and polluted as hell. The fumes that are being pumped out of the trucks are a filthy black and make the air hard to breathe. Bank staff, food stall owners and many others wear protective facemasks even when inside! As you walk between immigration points there are bulging casinos (gambling is illegal in both countries) and suspect characters trying to make a fast buck from anyone in no-mans land. It does feel lawless – because it basically is. After about half an hour and having signed a rather scary declaration form agreeing that we ‘may be subject to unknown chemical agents whilst in Cambodia’ we were back on another bus and heading to Siem Reap.
We arrived and immediately (as always happens when you get off a bus in this part of Asia) found ourselves surrounded by tuk tuk drivers and guesthouse owners all desperately waving brochures and repeatedly shouting ‘you take tuk tuk (motorbike taxi), you take tuk tuk’. It’s pretty hard to think with all the commotion and therefore almost easier to just agree to go with one of them. They are generally really nice people but will of course try and charge over the odds (you must bargain for everything – hotels, travel and even food sometimes) but the main problem is that when taking a tuk tuk straight off the bus you really don’t get any bearings about where you are.
We decided it’d be better for us to get our bearings by walking. We picked up our backpacks, looked at the map and ambled the 4km into town. We found a clean and cheap guesthouse after some searching and then grabbed a bite to eat and hit the hay. For the next couple of days we hired mountain bikes ($2 per day) to cycle around the temples of Angkor Wat ( a series of temples over a 30 km area over grown by jungle). The bikes were a great idea but only if you are reasonably fit (we did over 50km in 2 days) otherwise it’s advisable to negotiate a daily rate for a tuk tuk. To enter Angkor Wat you need to buy either a 1 or 3 day ticket. Realistically you need 3 days as there is a lot to see. But no joke, you will feel seriously ‘templed-out’ by the end of the last day.
Having enjoyed Angkor we jumped on another bus (3 hours) to Battambang in the East. Here we decided to ride the Bamboo train that is still used to transport goods between various places. It was fun for $5 and could certainly never exist in any country with health and safety regulations. It’s basically a 6ft x 6ft bamboo raft with a motorbike engine on train tracks. Sound a bit crazy? When it’s travelling at 50km per hour it feels pretty crazy! Our tuk tuk driver also took us to the Killing Caves where many people were killed during the Khymer Rouge regime. That was really interesting as it’s such recent history in Cambodia (70’s) but pretty bleak.
Back in Battambang we sought out a place to watch the Euro football as England were playing Italy. After asking around we were directed to a bar that might show it. We entered and met the French owner – who looked like a bit of a hippy and was on a laptop. I said very nicely ‘ hey buddy do you happen to have a tv screen as we’d like to watch the England football match tomorrow’. His reply was less than helpful, ‘Do you see a screen? I said do you see a screen? You’re in the middle of Cambodia, fuck the football, fuck business, forget about it all while you’re in Cambodia!’ Er yeh ok mate…. you just get back to being on your laptop, drinking your iced latte whilst using your high speed wi-fi connection.
The next day we jumped on a bus to the capital city Phnom Penh as we knew that we’d find a place to watch the footy there and because we were heading that way anyway. As soon as we stepped off the bus we picked up our bags and walked again until we found a place to stay a few streets back from the river which is the main foreigner area. That evening we wandered down to the river and found an Irish bar amongst the many seedy strip joints that was showing the footy. We lost on penalties at 4am our time.
When we woke up we decided to go to see Toul Sleng the genocide museum and the site of the actual prison camp from Khymer Rouge days (1975 – 1979). It’s actually an old school that was turned into a torture/death camp. Apparently 20,000 people or so died there. It’s incredibly ‘dark’, the walls and floors are still stained with blood that will never go away. If you’re in Phnom Penh you have to go, it wouldn’t be right to come to Cambodia without understanding it’s history to some extent.
With that in mind you can try and understand why people there are tough. I saw a middle aged woman beating her child repeatedly with a long 3 pronged stick. She must have hit the poor kid 50 times right in front of a tour bus. This is not the kind of place where you can intervene in something like that without potentially causing a riot yourself. To put it in perspective you have to remember that lady may have either suffered horribly or perhaps made others suffer horribly or both in the last 30 years. God knows how that would affect you and your actions/reactions. That does not mean I condone the treatment of her child, it’s just something I saw and am trying to make sense of.
Here is another example of being a foreigner in Phnom Pehn where you can’t say or do anything about things you think are wrong. One day we sat down in a restaurant with about 30 Cambodians at the other tables. We ordered 3 cokes from a smiling and friendly waiter. The falang menu (higher priced menu for foreigners) said they were 2000 riel (about 50 cents). Having finished we asked for the bill and were told it came to 7500 riel. Ok, that doesn’t quite work out so we asked to see the menu again as the price was different. The waiter brought back the menu where he had changed the price in pen to 2500 riel. It’s not a major difference but can you imagine if someone did that to you anywhere else in the world, it’s pretty cheeky. We tried to complain out of principal and had a stand off for about 10 minutes but were starting to cause a scene so paid up the 7500 and quickly left.
Incidents like that happened pretty much at least once a day to us in Cambodia and it’s something you need to be mindful of whilst at the same time remembering that you are a visitor. This isn’t your country, things don’t work the same and you kind off just have to go with the flow.
We left Phnom Pehn after 3 days and to be honest I was pretty glad because it really was a big dirty city. The sex trade is really in your face with loads of dodgy looking older western men walking in and out of the seedy bars. That’s just my opinion I’m glad I went to see it but it’s one place I don’t need to go back to. I knew I’d see some stuff on this trip that wasn’t going to be ‘right’ to me, that comes with the territory, I have accepted that.
Having checked visa prices we decided that Vietnam would be too expensive to visit this time, so instead we headed towards Laos. Back at the bus station we boarded a local bus to Kratie, 9 hours north with a stop along the way where they sold piles of fried crickets and tarantulas from huge dishes. I gave those a miss, sometimes it’s good being a veggie…
Kratie was cool, it’s a good place with awesome sunsets to stop whilst going towards Laos. Whilst there we hired a long tail boat and went out onto the Mekong river to see the fresh water dolphins. Within 2 minutes they were swimming 20ft from our boat. It was a good hour on the river although if you do this don’t expect back flips from the dolphins, if you’re lucky you might see a snout, a fin or a spray from a blow hole.
We left Kratie after a couple days and headed to Banlung where we hired bikes, got absolutely soaked in a monsoon rainstorm and swam in a huge lake that filled an extinct volcano crater. That was our last stop in Cambodia, all we had to do now was get to the border safely and we’d be in Laos. Once again things weren’t so simple!
Having bought a ticket to Don Det island in Laos we were told we’d take a bus to the border then another bus once in Laos, then a boat. That sounded reasonable… instead however we were picked up by a tuk tuk which took us to a bus station, then we got on a bus, then got dropped off. We looked around for the next bus, instead of a bus there were 2 motorbike scooters waiting for us. So, 3 of us with 3 large heavy backpacks and day bags getting on 2 motorbikes with the drivers? Not the most ideal situation… The driver of one motorbike put 2 backpacks on his lap and I got on the back wearing my backpack and clutching my day bag. Matt and Caz both got on the back of the other motorbike. That was a seriously scary 20 minutes drive but there was no alternative. You can’t just get a taxi! I have to say I was happy to be off the motorbike and on the next bus to the Laos border.
Once again subjected to ‘the visa scam’. But this time we were more pushy and said we wanted to get the visas ourselves. That worked out fine after some persuasion although we were told we couldn’t say anything to any of the other travellers on our bus as obviously they’d paid the ‘extra fees’.
Phew, now in Laos in 1 piece and we got to Don Det island. Relaxed for 1 last night together then I was parting ways with Maz as I needed to head north to catch my flight to Chiang Mai. I had 4 days to travel 25 hours overland.
So I bought my ticket to Vientiene (the capital city), Maz waved me off as I left Don Det at 11am on a long tail boat. From there I got a 3 hour bus to a place called Pakse. Here I had to wait until 8pm to get my sleeper bus to Vientiene.
I met some other travellers in a café also getting the 8pm bus so we chatted and waited together. But when I boarded the bus at 8pm I was told my ticket was wrong. Apparently there was another bus station on the other side of town… ah…I wouldn’t make that now. Shit. Oh well, I walked into town and found a room in a hotel for the night. The next day I had to buy a new ticket and wait until 8pm again after checking out of my hotel at 12pm. What a pain!
I slept well on my sleeper bed (I had the whole bed) and was nicely rested as we arrived into Vientiene at 6am. As I wasn’t tired I decided not to stay but to keep moving to Luang Prabang another 12 hour bus journey away but at least I’d end up in the place where I would catch my flight from in a couple of days. So, I wandered around the city then got on the bus about 9pm.
When you buy a sleeper bus ticket in Laos you only get half a double bed. As I was travelling alone now I wasn’t sure who else I’d be sharing a bed with. It was a guy from Laos who spoke no English. Now, just to explain, westerners are quite a bit taller and broader than people from Laos so these ‘double’ beds were much more like our single beds but shorter. We were squashed together as the bus travelled windy, bumpy roads for 12 hours. Certainly an experience and I hardly slept a wink. Mainy because I was lying next to the window and every time I drifted off the bus would hit a bump causing my head to hit the window, not ideal at all!
I was relieved to arrive in Luang Prabang. It’s really a beautiful and well developed town nestled amongst the surrounding jungle. I spent my time climbing to the temple in the middle of town and swimming in the amazing waterfalls. 2 really relaxing days before catching my Laos Airlines flight to Chiang Mai to start my course.